ON LAB LABA LABA (SPIDER LAB) AND THE PLAYFUL REINCARNATION OF THE PROPAGANDA FILMS OF NEW ORDER ERA INDONESIA

This entry was posted on April 24th, 2016

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“Propaganda Belongs to the People!”

By Lauren Bliss*

In early 2015, the Indonesian experimental film co-operative Lab laba laba (Spider Lab) restored for exhibition a large number of propaganda films that had been produced in the abandoned film studios of the State Production Film Centre (PFN) in Jakarta. Having been left to the elements for nearly 12 years, the PFN was once the central film production house of New-Order era Indonesia. Thousands of propaganda films were produced there, including the infamous 1984 film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI – an officially endorsed representation of the justification of the mass murder of over 1,000,000 people that had been deemed ‘communists’. This genocidal history has been recently brought to light by Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentaries The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), whose infamy has been made possible only through digital dissemination. The documentaries have been made available to a global audience, across a wide range of platforms and avenues, with Oppenheimer himself allowing the films to be uploaded onto YouTube and to BitTorrent in full.[1] Lab laba laba, on the other hand, more or less eschew digital technology and they work only with 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm film. Their practice, as it remains militantly dedicated to the filmic strip, reveals the difficulties and complexities of the manner and means in which cinematic technology is instrumentalised for political purposes.

Film schools in Indonesia, like film schools around the world, are following the digital trend and are ceasing the study and use of analogue filmic technology. Lab laba laba, like many other artist-run film laboratories that eschew digital technology, attract scores of young film students curious as to the technological aspect of filmmaking. Artist-run film laboratories are vibrant, community based-initiatives that are involved in all aspects of the filmmaking process, from shooting, to developing, post-production, and exhibition as well as, in this instance, restoration and archiving.[2] I sat in conversation with Lab laba laba at their exhibition at the 2015 Jakarta Biennale. Chatting with members Edwin, Rizky Lazuardi, Aditya Martodiharjo, and Mario Patrick, they discussed how the intentions of their exhibition was to highlight how a national archiving law is restricting the lab from accessing materials held at the ANRI (National Archive of the Republic of Indonesia). The law mandates old forms of technology be held in storage, such that it cannot be accessed by the public or by capable groups like Lab laba laba. Combined with a lack of investment, and lack of interest in preserving and reusing celluloid, Lab laba laba are effectively prevented from making use of the 55,000 reels of film held at the ANRI.[3] The emphasis in Indonesia, as it is the world over,[4] is on digital technology and there is a continued risk that the old films will be left to decay beyond repair and the history that formed a central piece of the collective Indonesian memory and imaginary entirely lost (indeed, at one point the PFN was going to be turned into a shopping mall). To this end, the work of Lab laba laba reveals that even those films that are held in national archives and scanned for digital dissemination are effectively lost. For one, the digital dissemination of these films would preserve the same illusory conditions or virtuality that made the propaganda what it was. While to an extent this position may produce more questions than it solves regarding the complex differences between digital and original film technologies, this argument can be illuminated by the strength of the work of Lab laba laba. They do not embed a ‘moral message’ in the propaganda films as they rescreen them, or offer a prior interpretation through which the film is to be understood in those that they rework and artistically manipulate – rather, it is the simple ‘act of projection’ through which the viewer is invited to engage and participate in order to come to terms with the materiality of perception.

In this regard, Lazuardi made an assertion in our conversation that, to my mind, could have only come from a filmmaker who eschews digital technology:

“Propaganda belongs to the people. We want access to these films because they form part of collective Indonesian identity and memory, without them people lose that knowledge and access to the past.”

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I’ve taken this, somewhat oxymoronic, claim as the title for this essay – by definition propaganda never ‘belongs’ to the people, it is the people who belong to the propaganda. The simple aim of propaganda is to allow the powers that be to exercise mass influence, and mass-manipulation through oversimplification and mis-information via coercive representation. As Lazuardi points out, the complexities of propaganda become apparent when viewed retrospectively. Lab laba laba foreground the moebius strip-like aspect of this mode of representation, that its hyper-saturated, simplistic illusions nonetheless influence both social reality and collective memory. Their films, which are grounded in the local and the material, playfully combine both fictional and realistic perspectives to effect an altered critical view of the collective memory of that era and to defuse the intentions of the propaganda; namely, the refusal of complexity, contradiction, uncertainty and multiple points of view.

Searching for a film splicer in 2014, an instrument that joins two pieces of film together, led Edwin to the PFN where he thought it likely that some useful equipment could be found. He was surprised to come upon a treasure trove of over 800 reels of film in various states of decay, after having been left more-or-less exposed to the humid climate, as well as a wealth of machinery that was also in various states of disrepair. Discovering the great mass of films and associated equipment at the PFN was not quite like a miner finding a treasure trove of gold. For one, many of the films had succumbed to ‘vinegar syndrome’, a common issue that effects physical film (it can spread from canister to canister like a virus). In the humidity of Indonesia’s climate, and without storage in an air conditioned unit, the experience of being inside the PFN would have been grueling. The humidity of the local climate itself makes dark-room work difficult, but canisters of films laden with vinegar-syndrome also effect the smell and taste of the air and sting the eyes. The restorative work was assisted on a voluntary basis by Australians Richard Tuohy, Dianna Barrie, and Carl Looper, all active in the Melbourne based DIY film scene with local co-operative Artist Film Workshop (of which I am also a member). Their collective efforts eventually led to an exhibition of the propaganda films in April, 2015, held in conjunction with the PFN and screened at the original site. Some of the films were restored to their original condition, and others were taken to be manipulated and reproduced into different artistic visions of the original. This work also led to another, similar exhibition of films at the OK Video festival in Jakarta in the July of 2015.

New-Order Era Indonesia (Orde Baru, 1966-1998) had only one government controlled television station, TVRI, until 1988, and all media screenings were subject to varying levels of State control. The work of Lab laba laba with the original propaganda films confers, however, that to paint the film industry of this time with one broad brush, as if its production, distribution, and reception were all elided, would be too decisive. All members emphasised how these films remained in their memories, in particular the children’s puppet shows Si Titik and Si Unyil produced for TVRI. According to researcher Veronika Kusumaryati, these puppet shows were produced “under the direction and supervision of G. Dwipayana, PFN’s director who is a former military official and played a major role in some of the most important New Order’s films such as Serangan Fajar (1982) and the notorious Pengkhianatan G 30 S/PKI (1984)” (which I mentioned earlier).[5] The subject of one episode of Si Titik, for example, is a justification of Indonesia’s colonisation of West Papua, which is played out by a little girl named Titik. Her plane crashes into the West Papuan jungle, and she stumbles upon a community of Indigenous locals. She realises that in order for the community to survive she should adopt nationalistic morals and teach the Indigenous people she encounters how to read, write, and protect the environment. Lab laba laba simply re-screened the episode at the OK Video festival to encourage discussion, and to allow that audiences remember the past. There was, in this sense, no prior interpretation or intervention through which the audience was supposed to perceive the films. This allowed the screenings to have simultaneous, if contradictory, perspectives allowing that the elision of the history of West Papua be as apparent as the original, innocent childhood memories of the show.

The effect of the work of Lab laba laba is to return and represent the materiality of the original films. As Edwin writes in a blog-post on the website for Lab laba laba: “film is a medium that is very tactile in nature. Like all forms of arts, film can be touched the way a sculptor caresses his clay.”[6] This interest in the materiality of the original can similarly be found in Lazuardi’s film on the past occupation of East Timor, and the infamous murder of Australian journalists the Balibo Five and Roger East. His film is entitled Eastman on Mr. East of East (the title, of course, a play on Eastman Kodak, Roger East, and East Timor), and it combines footage of feature film Balibo (2009) that was banned in Indonesia, with documentary footage of the events and its credits contain a poor reproduction of the official insignia of the New Order era government. Balibo is an Australian adaptation on the events surrounding the death of the journalists in East Timor by Indonesian forces. After a coronial inquest, Australia now holds that the journalists were deliberately executed, while the official stance of Indonesia is that they were caught in the crossfire (part of the reason that Balibo was banned is that it represents their murder in brutal fashion). Lazuardi’s combination of the fictional, documentary and (obviously faked) official government insignia is not a direct comment on the conflict per se; rather it draws attention to the constructed nature of film itself and, in this sense, that censorship is never wholly effective and that the internal politics of the regime cannot erase the voices or perceptions of the people who are subjected to it.[7]

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In this respect, it is not simply that seemingly archaic, outdated or ‘inefficient’ film technology is being lost in the world-wide shift to digital, but a material insight into the political aesthetics of motion picture technology. Mario, a young film student, explained to me that he joined Lab laba laba because he was particularly intrigued by the origins of the filmic image. Speaking through Edwin as a translator, he said that he did not “understand where film images came from” related to the manner in which the technology was able to produce the image in the first place. The slow, laborious process of the developing process, which mandates working in a dark room with only one’s mind to guide in the absence of being able to see the movements of the hand or physical body, was described by all Lab laba laba members as the driving force behind their interest in the filmic medium. Edwin, well known for exclusively shooting his features on celluloid, provocatively expanded on this – arguing that digital was uninteresting because of its immediacy. “I could go out and shoot anytime, and record a picture of anything, and then see what I have made right away. But that [kind of] reality sucks”. Adit, who is also a practitioner of glitch-art, agreed. He described the relationship between film and digital as two-directional. “Digital will progress further and further, and it will be a medium that can be used by everyone, but film has always been able to do as much as what digital can do (technically speaking). Without film [however] there is no concept of the origin”.

As I suggest, this can be understood in the light of the popular uptake of digital and social media technologies to produce social change and emancipation. The Act of Killing and the The Look of Silence address the same history as the films of Lab laba laba, and both offer no obvious prior interpretation through which to understand this history as they engage with reflexive forms of representation. The productive reflexivity of Oppenheimer’s documentaries has been written about at length, particularly related to the manner in which the original killers are invited to re-enact their ‘acts of killing’ as if they are in genre films. Nonetheless, I still feel that their implicit assumption within both documentaries is that the horrific past of Indonesia is forgotten both locally and internationally and is in need of remembering and representing. For Lab laba laba, on the other hand, the events of their past are ever-present rather than strictly ‘forgotten’ or lost as such.

Lab laba laba’s restoration of the propaganda films confers a materiality to perception and to memory, allowing that the films be harnessed and utilised to encourage an understanding of how moving-image production and reception affects its audience on political, cultural, and psychological levels. Analogue film cannot be distributed with the same immediacy as digital technology or to mass audiences; however, Lab laba laba use this to their advantage and prove that this is a strength. At each festival screening the members of the co-operative have been present, and the audience welcomed to participate, effecting a different kind of engagement with the propaganda at hand. In this way perspective is returned to the people who should possess it, a perspective released from the shackles of the past as it is without the illusions of the clear and concrete meaning that propaganda institutes.

*Lauren Bliss recently completed a PhD in figural film theory at the University of Melbourne. She is also a member of Melbourne-based Artist Film Workshop, and visited Lab laba laba at the 2015 Jakarta Biennale.

Notes

[1] Janet Hoskins and Violet Lasmana, “The Act of Killing” Visual Anthropology 28(3) 2015: 264.

[2] See Genevieve Yue, “Kitchen Sink Cinema: Artist Run Film Laboratories” Film Comment March 30, 2015. see also my recent piece on the work of Richard Tuohy, “Second Nature” Senses of Cinema, issue 76 (forthcoming, March 2016).

[3] See entry for Lab laba laba at the Jakarta Biennale http://jakartabiennale.net/lab-laba-laba/

[4] A similar problem is happening at the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in Australia, as restructuring is seeing the risk of loss of public access to the national archives. See Giles Fielke, “Youtube isn’t the answer to tricky questions about film” The Conversation, May 7, 2014. https://theconversation.com/youtube-isnt-the-answer-to-tricky-questions-about-film-26184

[5] Veronika Kusumaryati, “Si Titik and the Frontier of the New Order’s Fear” Keep Up With West Papua (Blog), July 21, 2015.  http://keepupwithwestpapua.tumblr.com/post/122092569544/si-titik-and-the-frontier-of-new-orders-fear

[6] Edwin (2015). “A Year of Lab laba laba: On Choice and Knowledge.” Lab laba laba (blog), July 25, 2015. http://lablabalaba.blogspot.com.au/2015/07/a-year-of-lab-laba-laba-on-choice-and.html

[7] See more at entry “Eastman of Mr East on East” http://okvideofestival.org/web/en/eastman-of-mr-east-on-east/

(Photo/Illustration Angga Allensyah Putra)